Notebook: The Omar mosque brought together Parisians who seldom mix, writes Adam Thomson
It had threatened rain all morning and the storm clouds were gathering as Eva Jaurena took the mic at an outdoor brunch in Paris’s 11th arrondissement.
It had taken her two months to put together what she and Ernest, a charity that raises money to fund organisations that provide food for the needy, were billing as “a friendly event to bring together people who rarely have the opportunity to meet”.
In practice, and given that this was the young, hip and multicultural 11th arrondissement — the district where Islamist terrorists went on the rampage last November — that meant bringing residents of a divided neighbourhood closer together.
Ms Jaurena, who previously worked for the French government, planned for 200 people. In the event, about 150 showed up — not bad in an erratic north European summer.
More important was the mix: the local Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk and the district’s mayor all turned out. So, too, did Abdelkader Achour, the smartly dressed imam of the Omar mosque, located on the corner of the square where the brunch took place.
The Omar mosque is symbolic for two reasons. First, it is a stone’s throw from the Bataclan concert hall where Islamist terrorists armed with automatic weapons, grenades and suicide vests killed 89 people. The second is that, in 2012, Mohamed Hammami, the mosque’s Tunisian religious leader at the time, was expelled from France. Manuel Valls — then interior minister, now prime minister — said he had “held openly hostile intentions towards the values of the republic”.
More recently, however, this mosque has been one of the few in Paris publicly to condemn the attacks. Just days after November’s horrors, leaders hung out a banner with “not in my name” written in the colours of the French flag. This approach contrasted with the mosque’s image as a seedbed of extremism.
It also contrasted with the responses I heard from some other French Muslims. After the attacks, I visited friends in the Goutte d’Or, a gritty, predominantly Muslim area behind Paris’s Gare du Nord station, and was surprised to hear that they felt no need to send a public message. “Why should I?” said one. “My religion is private and I don’t have to explain or justify it to anyone.”
During Ms Jaurena’s brunch of soup and lentil salad, served from a food truck, I stepped into the mosque to find out from its members why they were taking part in this attempt to build bridges between two worlds that coexist but rarely meet. Hamadi Hammami, one of the sons of the expelled imam and president of the association to which Omar mosque and six others in France belong, told me that co-ordinating anything among Muslims in France is tough because, unlike the Catholic church, there is no clear structure or hierarchy.
He explained that many mosques in the country are financed by foreign states — each of which pushes their own, often conflicting, politics. These states also tend to supply the imams, who in many cases do not speak French. As Mr Hammami told me, they “often come from the countries that send the money so they don’t understand the realities of France or the people who live here”.
I thought back to my visit in the aftermath the November attacks to the city of Chartres . At a mosque that had been attended by one of the men who targeted the Bataclan, leaders delivered their impromptu press conference in Arabic to a bewildered audience.
Hammami had a mouthful of sound bites that strike all the tones a liberal audience would want to hear, largely about community. “Muslims came to me after the attacks saying that they were afraid of being stigmatised. Non-Muslims said they were afraid of their Muslim neighbours,” he said. “People need to talk more.”
I stepped outside to see how much talking was going on. Most of the brunchers seemed to be white, urban and older. There were few hipsters, even fewer younger Muslims.
Yet there was something in the air. “I live in the area,” said Ms Jaurena, “but I had never talked to people in the mosque before this event.” She could not say that any more. Neither could anyone else who turned up.
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